Saving the old ones – what we are learning from the trees

Photo by Dan Meyers on Unsplash

Years ago now, I learned a bit about how to do ‘therapeutic touch’. It is a method of working with energy, without physically touching the human body, and it is now widely taught and used in nursing and palliative care. Since 1972, it has been taught in more than 80 colleges and approximately 90 countries, and there are now about 100,000 people who have learned how to do it in the US, Canada and around the world. It works, as scientific studies showed after people got over scoffing at it and decided to look for evidence. 

I did get to the point where I could feel where energy had ‘clumped’ and was able to smooth it out. Some of my subjects said they had never felt so relaxed before. But I never managed to connect to a tree, as others in the advanced level of training did, although I never worked at it very diligently. The ones who were successful said they could recognize ‘their’ tree – the one whose energy they had explored.

I was thinking about this when I read two stories today about relationships and connections with trees and thought about how this is the mark of a paradigm shift – from exploitation of nature to stewardship of nature. From nature as object for our use, to nature as a relationship that is part of a web of such relationships.

One of the stories was in The Narwhal, an interview with groundbreaking ecologist Suzanne Simard, author of Finding the Mother Tree.

As The Narwhal summarized it:

“She eventually learned the mycelium were part of an extraordinary mycorrhizal network that was working with the trees to mutual benefit, carrying resources like carbon and nitrogen back and forth through the underground forest ecosystem. She popularized the term, Mother Tree, explaining the ecological connections between trees is like the nurturing connection between mother and child. She discovered that old trees feed new trees a cocktail of nutrients necessary for survival and change the ingredients of the cocktail in response to climatic conditions. She even found old trees recognize their own kin, preferentially distributing nutrients to their offspring over seedlings that took root in their shade carried there by wind or dropped by a bird or animal.”

I could just imagine some industrial foresters rolling their eyes at such a description – mother and child, community, communications, recognizing your own kin. Nothing to do with scientific forestry management, they would say.

And when she first published her work on connection and forests, “I just got slaughtered,” she told The Narwhal. Something similar happened to the researchers who made dramatic new discoveries about neuroplasticity – the brain that changes and learns – ideas that are now widely accepted but were terribly controversial at first.

In 2015, with her work now widely accepted, she started The Mother Tree Project to share her research widely and present new approaches to forest management. She established experimental sites in nine climatic regions across British Columbia to explore how climate change will affect forest regeneration.“How do we protect these old trees and still be able to harvest some trees?” she asks. “And what would the patterns be as the climate is changing? As we have to migrate trees, what do they need? We’re finding out that survival of new migrants is about 30 per cent higher when they have the cover of old trees.”

But she laments that her scientific discoveries are only very slowly changing the way forestry is done – and one of the things that will help move us there is public engagement, she says.

As I read the article, I kept thinking of these very old trees – the ones that are being cut down, despite protests – as elders in an Indigenous community. I saw them gathered together, sharing stories, and helping to educate the next generation. And I thought about what happened in the Northwest Territories when all the elders died off during the 1918 flu epidemic, about how some younger people had to try and step up to become elders. 

But I am apparently not the only one. One day, a great many older people showed up to join the long-running protest at Fairy Creek, where old growth forest is being cleared. They saw a link, and they understood what can happen when the wisdom of the old is not valued. But they are not just being sentimental – they see the possibility for a big paradigm shift.

The Elders for Ancient Trees want their next conversation with the Pacheedaht chief and council to be about “what it might take to shift to non-extractive employment for Indigenous people and others as forest guardians or in the tourist sector, buoyed in the region in recent years by visitors drawn to the old-growth forests.”

Photo by Tony L on Unsplash

The second article, in the Seattle Times, was about Jerry Forest Franklin, 84, who was an architect of the Northwest Forest Plan, adopted in 1994, which reshaped how 24 million acres of federal forests from Washington to Northern California were managed. 

It came about because Franklin, working as a U.S. Forest Service scientist in Oregon, led a study of a coniferous forest which “uncovered a rich and intricate world, in which ancient trees nourished new life with fallen logs, cleansed salmon-filled streams, and provided habitat for a menagerie of life, including lichens, rodents, and owls.” That was in 1969, and it set off a decade of protest and debate about logging on the US West Coast.

The plan essentially halted logging in federally owned old-growth forests- trees older than 180 years – on federal lands and protected 4 million hectares of mixed old-growth and previously logged lands. The plan’s approach was based on ecosystem and watershed management and involved cooperation, coordination, and collaboration among the participating federal agencies and with the states, tribes, and local governments. The story says it “still is regarded as one of the world’s most ambitious actions to look beyond management of trees primarily for lumber production to forests, to be conserved for preservation of biodiversity.”

When three journalists joined Franklin at the last stand of old growth in Gifford Pinchot National Forest and sat with him at his cabin in the woods, he sounded a lot like Simard. He talked about the circle of 500-year-old Douglas firs in the forest that is “one of the wisest sources of counsel he knows.” He holds himself accountable to them, just as if they were elders.

“Everybody needs to have some superior being to report back to periodically on what they are doing and what the justification for it is,” Franklin said. And we would all do well to be mentored by forests and strive for a new relationships with trees, he told them. “We need to be thinking more and more about a partnership. Our job is to collaborate with nature. To work with natural processes for the mutual benefit of the forest ecosystem, and society.”

“If trees were sentient in the sense that we could communicate with them, I don’t think trees would mind being utilized,” Franklin says. “What is offensive is to not be respectful. And to not appreciate the complexity, the richness, the beauty that’s present.There’s no excuse for that.”

Ever since I first read about Simard’s research, I have seen trees differently. I don’t see them as just sources of construction materials. Now I see them as a community, with its own systems and connections. And I think of how we are moving, ever so slowly, from being the lords of creation to the stewards of creation.